After weeks of opposition from prominent Republican politicians and a $500,000 television spot from Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), the U.S. Department of Justice is softening its tone toward Louisiana's school voucher system.
According to a new amendment filed in the case early Tuesday, DOJ anticipates a resolution to the suit, which has become politically touchy. But despite Jindal's pleas, the feds are not dropping the case. And in a letter written to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), the department indicated its displeasure with the substance of the program as well -- not just the legal technicalities.
Vouchers use public dollars to pay for private -- and often religious -- schools. In August, the Department of Justice filed suit against Louisiana, arguing that its school voucher program violates decades-old school desegregation orders in 34 school districts. The lawsuit, which coincided with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, sought a permanent injunction to stop the state from awarding vouchers to students in those districts for the 2014-2015 school year without first seeking pre-clearance from a federal court.
Since the initial filing, a steady stream of Republicans and Louisiana residents have blasted the administration. On Tuesday, a group of four mostly minority families filed a motion seeking to block the suit. Last week, Boehner and other Republican lawmakers wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, accusing him of trying to keep black kids in failing schools. Jindal has used the suit as a launching point for a biting critique of the administration overall.
According to the amendment filed at midnight on Tuesday, the Department of Justice is pleased with a Sept. 18 court order that created a schedule for Louisiana to come into compliance with the desegregation orders and provide the information the feds want. It said that "a process is now in place" for the case to be resolved. But it still wants Louisiana to be required to clear its voucher process with the federal court.
Jindal, though, saw DOJ's move as lacking substance. “The Obama Administration’s latest maneuver is nothing more than a P.R. stunt," he said in a statement provided to The Huffington Post. "While attempting to rebrand its legal challenge as merely an attempt to seek information about implementation of the scholarship program, the administration’s real motive still stands -- forcing parents to go to federal court to seek approval for where they want to send their children to school."
The governor added that the information the feds seek doesn't yet exist. “The federal government is attempting to retreat in name only, but is not backing off its attack on Louisiana parents," Jindal said. "The Obama Administration is doubling down on its belief that bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. know better than Louisiana parents."
Jindal called for the administration to "drop the lawsuit entirely."
DOJ's filing apparently seeks to defuse the situation, which has become politically volatile. "The United States is neither opposing the Defendant State of Louisiana's ... school voucher program nor seeking to take vouchers away from any student who received them," the department wrote. "Rather, the United States is simply seeking this Court's assistance in ensuring that the information Louisiana collects" on vouchers is provided to the feds on time and that the state complies with desegregation orders, the motion continued.
The filing, signed by Jocelyn Samuels, acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, adds that as of late Friday, Louisiana "has finally agreed to provide" the federal government with the data it sought in May on the voucher program. The state told DOJ that it would give the department some information by Sept. 26 and the rest by Oct. 8.
The court also ordered the state to provide "an analysis of the voucher awards" for the current school year "respecting impact on school desegregation" by Nov. 7.
A hearing on the question of the federal government's oversight of the voucher system has been set for Nov. 22. "The motion will have been satisfied," Samuels writes, if the court concludes that desegregation orders apply to the voucher program such that Louisiana needs a court's approval to implement it and that "a process of review of the Voucher program" is ensured.
Peter Kadzik, principal deputy assistant attorney general, sent Boehner a letter on Tuesday to note the progress. "This represents a significant breakthrough," he wrote of Louisiana's agreement to hand over the requested data. "We are pleased that Louisiana finally has agreed to provide the necessary information to the Department. It is only regrettable that the Department had to resort to court involvement in this case in order to obtain it."
Kadzik questioned the underlying assumption that private schools covered by the vouchers in Louisiana are necessarily better than the state's public schools. "We share your interest in ensuring that low-income and minority children in Louisiana have equal access to educational opportunities," he wrote. "It is not clear that all of the new schools for which children are receiving vouchers in Louisiana provide opportunities that are better than or even equal to those in their old schools."
He went on to cite media reports about one school that had "no teachers or actual classrooms." Instead, students were shown DVDs until the school was "ejected from the program. There have been other reports noting a lack of educational accountability, a lack of financial oversight, and the limited parent choice involved in the program."
In 2012, Jindal created Louisiana's voucher system for 380,000 students in low-performing schools. After the state Supreme Court struck down the program's funding mechanism, Jindal found another way to pay for it.
Generally, vouchers are a political flashpoint in education, even as a bipartisan consensus has emerged around certain other school policies in recent years. Advocates and politicians tout them as a way of leveling support for public and private schools. Opponents say vouchers siphon money away from public schools, further privatization of the public sector, and allow public money to support schools that teach religion.